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Like many Americans, I spent most of the weekend focused on two things, the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic and the Secret Service and military scandal in Colombia.
The Titanic anniversary has stayed with me this week because I was born just 39 years after it sank. We sang songs about it, looked at photos taken of the ship, perused a book about it constantly. Burnished in our memory was the movie “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” about a woman who rescued fellow passengers on the Titanic. Most of us growing up in the 1950s knew a lot about the Titanic and how heroic many of the passengers and crew were.
We also grew up in an era where the FBI and Secret Service were magical and could do no wrong. There was not the current gossip about J. Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson. No one knew that Mr. Hoover had files on the personal lives of many Americans who had nothing to do with a life of crime. White middle-class Americans were thought to have lived lives like Ozzie and Harriet and “Father Knows Best” despite what might have been happening at America’s most trusted institution. All of this broke apart when Americans began to distrust their government after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
The convergence of the anniversary of the Titanic and the prostitutes with the Secret Service should be seen as two sides of our national coin. It is our best moments of heroism and our worst moments of law enforcement.
I have contact with the Secret Service several times a week as I enter and exit the White House. They are always professional, kind and courteous. So, what has gone wrong? What has allowed this to happen? Ronald Kessler, who has written about government agencies including the Secret Service and the CIA, said in interviews over the weekend that the Secret Service has had to deal with increasing threats to the president, a 400 percent increase.
Clearly, one reason might be having to do “more with less” and not having the resources to deal with the challenge. Clearly, if the reports are true and the “advance” agents were drinking heavily during the week before President Obama arrived, that points to a lot of stress. Having worked in the alcoholism field for many years, it is not uncommon for stress to lead to increased drinking and increased bad behavior as a result of the drinking.
Another reason may be what I call the “broken window” effect. It was noticed that communities were able to keep order and reduce vandalism by reducing things like broken windows. This reduction of the effects of small vandalism meant that there would be less petty crime and therefore less cascading into larger criminal activity.
I am considered old-fashioned because I am horrified at the way tourists dress while touring the Capitol. I think that if you are going to visit our seat of government, then cut off jeans, flip-flops and the like are not acceptable. I often wonder if it is a reflection of the kind of discourse that we see in Congress and a basic lack of respect that we have for our political institutions.
I am also aware that prostitution is considered the world’s oldest profession, so I am not under any illusions that law enforcement has not engaged in this kind of behavior before. However, is it possible that our laxness in dress and allowable behavior in combination with the increased stress of having to guard a president who has a huge increase in threats against him led to this kind of misjudgment?
I do not know the operations of law enforcement well enough to know what happened. I am sure congressional investigations will uncover every gory detail. What I do know is that the respect for our institutions has decreased and that the many agencies have more responsibilities since 9/11 – and budgets have been cut or not increased while responsibility has.
The answer to why this happened is probably not just one thing. It may not just be overwork, the budget, stress or the “broken windows.” It may be some complicated brew that allowed these agents to let down their guard and to act poorly. For the Secret Service it has been a scandal of Titanic proportions. From the sinking of the Titanic, much was learned about shipbuilding and lifeboats and other precautions that eventually made sea travel safer. Hopefully, there will be lessons learned from this scandal as well and there will be some real heros from this just like there were in the unforgiving ocean 100 years ago.